In a Simpsons episode, Ned Flanders is extolling the merits of recycling “just our way of giving Mother Earth a great big hug.” Montgomery Burns responds sarcastically: “Yes, well, it does sound delightful. I can’t wait to start rummaging through the trash like some half-starved raccoon.”
It sounds as though the rummaging involved is to become more onerous. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has been investigating the Waste Strategy for local authorities. It is published by the Environment Department and includes plenty of positive and interesting points. Chapter 7 considers innovation and new technology. What can be done to encourage switching to plastic that is made of starch and thus biodegradable?
Other points seem less sensible. I am usually suspicious that imposing greater complexity ends up being counterproductive. It sounds as though the Government wants each household to have its own row of specialist dustbins. Clive Betts, the Committee’s Chairman and a Labour MP, asks Therese Coffey, an Environment Minister, about it:
Chair: Is it not the case that although you have given a range of options for councils, every householder will end up with at least four bins outside their front door?
Dr Coffey: Not necessarily. I have seen good development down in Canterbury City Council; they have done designs for their bins. I have seen other places where, in effect, they have one bin but inside they have different caddies. It will vary according to demographics and the type of housing stock that is there. I have seen it differentiate within a council area as well, though I cannot recall where off the top of my head.
Chair: We will come on to garden waste; I do not want to go into that specifically. You have asked for food, garden waste, general waste and recyclables, as a minimum, to be collected separately. That is four containers of some kind.
Dr Coffey: Yes. It is not necessarily four bins, but potentially four containers, yes.
Chair: I would be interested to see the containers that contain four different types of refuse to be taken away.
Dr Coffey: As I indicated earlier, it will vary from area to area. If you look across the border to Wales, there are some places that have nine bins for people to do the separating. Some of this will vary by council. The MRFs and the SMRFs are able to do the separation. In other areas they have asked householders to do more of the separation at the collection point, so that it makes it easier for the recycling to happen. Again, it will, to some extent, vary by area.
Chair: That explains the difference between four and six, in terms of how you do recyclables and whether you do it through a SMRF or separately. It does not explain the difference in terms of at least having a minimum of four.
Dr Coffey: Indeed. I can think of people having a food caddy; I have seen that quite a lot in people’s homes, which either then can be put in with the garden waste or collected separately. I have seen different things on paper. I have seen it vary around the country. There is good practice out there and councils are learning from each other. They still are well placed to make the decision, but we do have to have these overall attempts to try to reach our statutory targets. MHCLG, contrary to Wales, absolutely did not want councils to have individual statutory targets. It felt that was too far in our Government thinking, whereas in Defra—I am not pretending otherwise—I was quite keen to press minimum targets for councils. I think that we will see a different way that evolves, not necessarily in statutory targets but in how councils then respond to domestic pressure on why perhaps their recycling rate is so low in a particular area when it could be a lot higher, when their neighbours are a lot higher.
Unsurprisingly the European Union has a lot to do with it. Apparently, the imperative is to follow something called the “Circular Economy Directive”. For instance, here is Teresa Pearce, a Labour MP, asking about garden waste:
Teresa Pearce: Good afternoon. Could you explain why the Government are proposing that local authorities provide free garden waste collections despite local authorities seeming to oppose this?
Dr Coffey: When it comes down to it, the way the targets and the EU law are written is all about weight. It is not necessarily about the value of recycling products; it is all about weight.
Teresa Pearce: So it is about chasing tonnage.
Dr Coffey: It is about chasing tonnage; there is no doubt about that. The other thing that is important about garden waste is that it can also help with the reduction of carbon emissions. It depends on how people process their garden waste. If they decide to compost at home that is one way they can help to do that, but garden waste can just be put into the landfill bin and then into landfill, and that is bad for carbon emissions. There is an argument, absolutely, about tonnage, in trying to make sure that councils collect as much weight as possible.
Teresa Pearce: Do you think the Government would not meet their target of 65 per cent recycling in 2035 without free garden waste? Is that what you are saying?
Dr Coffey: The “free” bit is to try to maximise that as much as possible, but I have to say that the EU are now trying to change the basis on which the 65 per cent measure is calculated, though it is all weight still. Yes, we will struggle if we do not collect food and garden waste.
Teresa Pearce: You mentioned home composting; would it not be better to encourage that rather than a free service for garden waste?
Dr Coffey: It is certainly higher up the waste hierarchy than landfill, but composting itself needs to be done properly, again for it not to then create carbon emission problems. It is easier said than done, and I am conscious that there is that element. It definitely helps percentage-wise. I should say “percentage” rather than “tonnage”, coming back to what I said earlier. It certainly helps if you can recycle garden waste.
Teresa Pearce: We took some evidence from Somerset Waste Partnership, which told us that garden waste was one of the top two reasons people use recycling centres. Having spent most of Sunday morning at one myself with a car full of garden waste, I know that that is true. Have you looked at all at whether, if there was free garden waste collection, that would risk the long‑term viability of recycling centres? Have you done any work on that at all?
Dr Coffey: I do not believe that that is the case. I do not know what size your garden is at home, but mine is probably about half the size of this room and I can assure you that it relies on more than a fortnightly collection when I need to make sure I am processing my garden waste. I think people will continue to use that anyway. It will vary around the country.
Free garden waste collections are popular as they are perceived to be environmentally beneficial. That perception is probably false – see here and here. If, perhaps through technological advances, that equation changes, then so should the policy.
Might not having all these extra containers result in more contamination and thus disrupt the recycling process? It would be pretty frustrating if after the higher cost to the taxpayer and extra time spent by the householder, all this unsightly clutter failed in its objective.
The point is that Ministers should have to justify these decisions entirely on merit. It should no longer be justified with a shrug and a remark about meeting EU requirements. Nothing in this Waste Strategy should be imposed on that basis. From November we should start lifting bad rules that the EU forced us to adopt. That will be a big task. But we surely should not press ahead with those that are in the pipeline.